Energy and Society
Part 1: A Brief History of Energy and Society.
Three million years ago the first human beings walked upright on this amazing earth. The first humans, we think, walked in East Africa. They shared the earth with a great variety of animals. Many of these other animals were bigger, stronger, faster and more spectacularly good looking. Then, as now, there was a lot of competition for food, for living space, for a place in the sun.
In this often fierce competition the first humans had two things going for them. A better hand, and a better brain. Three million years later many of the same animals are still in East Africa, just as big, strong, fast and spectacularly good looking. The one animal with the better hand and the better brain is there, here and everywhere.
How did we get from there and then to here and now? If you are looking for the shortest best answer, I could sum it up in one word, energy. Energy understood in two senses, hand and brain, muse and animal muscle. And even more important, humans have learned how to learn. Have learned how to become ever more productive, Have learned how to create a more human world for themselves.
Let's take a look at the details. Recently I visited East Africa. I saw many magnificent animals on the plains of Serengeti and the volcanic soil of the Great Rift Valley. And I met some impressive people who lived there. People called Masai.
The Masai live in East Africa in very small villages, much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. For the Masai then and now, wealth (and energy) means cattle. The Masai depend on their cattle for food, shelter, transportation- for just about all the energy of living. One exception is the energy the Masai get from burning small bundles of wood in their cooking.
To get the wood for cooking, the Masai women must cut it and carry it- often from long distances. The energy they use for this cutting and carrying is supplied by the women's muscles, which in turn get energy from the cattle's milk and blood. In rough outline this is the way all early people all over the world-including all of our own ancestors-got their life energy and lived.
Energy, that is, came from two sources, plants and animals. When a people must live with only the energy from the plants and animals around them, we call it a low-energy society. Living in a low-energy society is not all bad. The Masai, and most other low-energy societies of the past and present, know the meaning of love. Love for wives and husbands, children and friends.
They often have a good deal of leisure. They have a religion and a sense of belonging. But living in a low energy society also means living in a society where most people eat only what they can grow, catch or gather; a society where most people never travel more than a few miles from where they are born; a society where most people cannot read or write; a society where most people live in almost daily fear of wild animals and often of wilder and fiercer neighbors; a society where most people are hungry much of the time and sometimes starving; a society where most people must live with sickness and disease much of the time, and where few people live beyond the age of thirty-five.
How, especially in America, Europe and Japan, did we get from a society of low energy to a society of high energy? A society where only two or three percent of the people are farmers, herders or fishermen so that most people eat only what other people grow, herd or catch for them. A society where most people travel many thousands of miles in their lifetimes; a society where most people can read and write; a society where most people (unfortunately not all) seldom experience violence except vicariously on TV or in the movies; a society where most people are healthy most of the time and where most people live to be older than seventy years. In short, a society of high energy.
How did we get from there to here? It wasn't easy: Here are a few of the most important steps on the road.
The very first step on the road to high-energy societies came when humans learned to grow food in gardens and fields, and to tame and husband animals. In these ways the first human societies could now have a larger and more reliable supply of food energy and animal muscle power. Still not very large, but larger and more reliable than a life of hunting, fishing and gathering wild foods could provide.
It was this agricultural revolution that led to the growth of the world's first civilizations in Africa, China, India, Egypt, Greece and Central and South America. Energy-wise the Masai people, and most of the present underdeveloped world are still living mostly in agriculturally based low energy civilizations.
Relatively small, but important, increases in energy came to agricultural civilizations a few thousand years ago when some humans learned to use the energy of the wind and of flowing water to serve their own needs. Instead of walking a few miles, or riding a horse a few tens or hundreds of miles, a few sailors could now travel thousands of miles using the power of the wind and water.
These new sailing ships could carry heavy loads quite easily for thousands of miles, allowing them to trade goods with other people at great distances from them. Each could then supply what the other lacked, and each could profit. Another way, unfortunately, that many, if not most, agricultural civilizations of the past got more energy for themselves and their families and friends was by making slaves of other families and non-friends.
The use of wind and water was like getting more slaves to work for you, but these were slaves you didn't have to conquer, guard and feed. Later some civilizations learned to get energy in another way. They invented and built unusual and ingenious machines that could use the power of the wind or of falling water to do useful work. Work like pumping water, grinding grain into flour, sawing trees into boards. In this way still more nonhuman slaves were available.
We don't know the names of the particular mechanics, artisans, scientists and philosophers who invented these new ways of getting and using energy. We do know we owe them a great deal. And we have forgotten some of the most important pioneers of all. The inventors whose invention came before all the rest and whose invention would lead in our day and age to energy sources undreamed of in past ages.
I am talking about fire. In early low-energy societies fire was used for cooking food, for defense against wild animals, for warmth in cold climates, for firing pottery and for getting useful metals like copper, lead and iron from otherwise useless rocks. A little more than two hundred years ago-about the time of our American Revolution fire began to be used in a far more dramatic and revolutionary way.
Fire became the energy source for what is called the Industrial Revolution. This revolution is still going on all over the world, changing low-energy societies into high-energy societies. Let's look at some details of this momentous change, by far the most important one since the agricultural revolution thousands of years before.
Historians do not agree on what caused what. The growing influence of new ideas like free trade, capitalism and democratic political systems probably played the most important roles. These ideas were most influential in Western Europe, especially in England. In fact, most historians think the Industrial Revolution began in England in the late eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century the revolution spread rapidly throughout Europe and North America. In our own twentieth century it is rapidly changing just about every society on earth.
Some trace the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution to a small city in central England named Coalbrookdale. The same year as our own Declaration of Independence, 1776, the English parliament put up the money to build the first iron bridge in the world in Coalbrookdale. The bridge was completed five years later and still stands today.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century engineers, iron-makers, industrial spies and artists from all over Europe flocked into Coaibrookdale to see how they did it. So far as energy goes, the most important change from thousands of years of iron making was a new method at Coalbrookdale that used a new form of coal called coke. Coke was made from coal in a process similar to the one that had been used for centuries to make charcoal from wood.
By using this new more highly concentrated source of energy, whole new possibilities opened up and were soon exploited. Instead of only using high-priced charcoal-smelted iron for special purposes like swords, armor, locks, knives, iron - bolts, chains and pots and pans, Coalbrookdale quickly became a leader in using the now more plentiful coke-produced iron to forge wagon wheels, to make the first iron rails and wheels for the newly invented railroads and most important of all, to make cylinders for the newly invented steam engines.
As far as our story goes, the important thing to remember is the sudden leap forward in brute energy and power that human societies could now count on to serve human purposes. The basic energy for this leap, remember, was provided almost completely by a black rock dug out of the ground, often at great human peril. That all-important black rock was coal.
Coal is what we call today a fossil fuel. It got its highly concentrated energy by storing the sunlight of millions of years ago. That millions-of years-ago sunlight was caught by green plants in ancient swamps. Some of these ancient plants died and piled up and slowly decayed into what we now find as veins of coal. Sometimes these veins of coal are near the surface of the earth today, and sometimes they are deep underground.
Coal had been known to many ancient societies, but it was used only sparingly. In the nineteenth century, however, this stored sunlight became the power source to change the world. To use this energy, the most powerful machine was the steam engine. One thing led to another, and again no one can be sure what caused what. (The steam engine, for instance, was invented to pump water from deep coal mines!) Soon the steam engine was improved and became a power source for railroad locomotives, steamships, factories, mills and mines. And by the end of the nineteenth century, steam engines were being used to produce the most versatile kind of energy of all, the newly invented electricity.
Coal and iron made the nineteenth century a century of rapid population growth, impressive new cities, ostentatious new wealth ... and urban poverty, industrial pollution and large-scale wars the likes of which the world had never before seen. Poverty, pollution and wars were nothing new, it was true. For thousands of years, ninety-nine percent of the people who lived in low-energy agricultural societies had lived always and everywhere with poverty, disease, wars and pollution. As Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth century philosopher in England, once put it, "the life of man everywhere is nasty, brutish and short."
Even the elite few who escaped poverty-the kings and queens, the bishops and nobles-could not escape disease, wars and pollution. For even the wealthiest human beings the average life span was still less than thirty years. In the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution, however, everything suddenly went topsy-turvy. On the one hand the sudden new increases in energy and wealth meant that many more people could live richer lives. They could now travel more, eat better, read and write, and had many more choices about what they could do with their lives. The average life span increased to over forty-five years.
On the other hand, the new factories and cities, the new smokestacks and urban crowding, the new railroads and education and literacy made old problems seem even worse. They made them seem this way because now people began to sense that the problems were solvable. One did not have to be poor. One did not have to have diseases. One did not have to put up with wars and inequality and pollution.
And that sense of hope (and anger) has continued and increased throughout the twentieth century. The hope and anger has spread from Europe and North America into Asia, South America, Africa and Oceania. On the physical level, the energy sources to power the Industrial Revolution have vastly increased.
So too has the pace of learning and invention. And finally, so too has the pace of social change, as almost everywhere people are becoming aware of and demanding more democratic political and economic institutions. As well as more wealth, security and energy.
Coal has continues to be an important energy source for the twenty-first century. However, beginning about the turn of the 20th century two other fossils fuels, oil and natural gas, came to play equally important parts. And in the final decades of the twentieth century still newer sources of energy came onto the scene. Energy sources like nuclear power, new forms of solar power, geothermal power, tidal power and biomass power.
All of these energy sources today, old and new, have given the average person in America, Europe and Japan the equivalent of over one hundred human slaves apiece, working just for him or her, while the average person in many parts of Asia, Africa and South America must still do with the energy generated by human and animal muscles. But the times are changing.
PART TWO: Energy Today and Tomorrow
Energy is everywhere. Energy is things happening. Energy is the power of life. The universe has no more energy now than it had a million years ago. And a million years from now there will still be the same amount of energy we have today. For energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be changed from one form into another.
It is these changes in energy from one form into another that make all the difference. And all things considered, though energy changes in nature are far more powerful, the energy changes brought about by the human hand and mind are the most interesting.
Energy today and tomorrow is a big subject. To help sort out facts from opinions, headlines from reality, let's take a look at energy from three different points of view-science, technology and society. First we'll look at the scientific side of energy.
Energy, to the scientist, is the ability to do work. Work is defined as a force moving through a distance. It is useful to express this mathematically. If you lift a thirty-pound weight a distance of two feet, a scientist would say you did 30 times 2, or 60 foot-pounds of work. If you pull a wagon with a force of 30 pounds through a distance of one mile (5,280 feet) the scientist would say you did 30 times 5,280, or 158,400 foot-pounds of work.
The energy you used to pull the wagon came from the calories in the food you ate for lunch. Where did the food get the energy? From the sunlight that powered the plants that were made into food in the process called photosynthesis. (If you had meat or dairy products for lunch, the energy still came from the sun by way of the plants, since that is where the cows got their energy.) That sunlight-to-plants-to-human energy is not destroyed when you "used it up" in your work. In this use the energy was changed into other forms. First into mechanical, and finally into heat energy. Foot-pound for foot-pound for foot-pound.
Even though there is the same amount of energy before your work as after you finish, there is an important difference. After the work is done, the energy is no longer in a useful form. There is no way you can now capture it and turn it back into useful work. Instead, the energy is now in the form of random heat energy that will soon radiate away from earth back into space. Random heat energy is useful only for warming the universe.
Unfortunately, all energy changes on earth end up this way as random heat. Scientists call this one-way flow of energy the second law of thermodynamics. (The first law of thermodynamics is that energy cannot be created or destroyed.)
We can change one form of energy into another by the use of technology. Nature's technology or human-created technology. Both follow the same scientific laws.
One of nature's most important inventions is the green leaf. Green leaves can change solar energy into the chemical energy of food. A muscle cell can change the chemical energy of food into the mechanical energy of motion. A brain cell can change food energy into feelings and thought. Human beings have invented many new ways for changing one energy form into another.
Whether we use nature's technology or human technology, in any change of energy we are very interested in making that change as efficient as possible. In every energy change some of the energy is lost. As humans we want to make that loss as small as possible. This means we want to have machines as efficient as possible. We want to squeeze as much work out of them as we can, putting the least amount of work into them. We want to do more with less.
The efficiency of a machine can be calculated. It is always the amount of work you get out divided by the amount of work you put in. Since you can never get as much work out as you put in, this means that the efficiency of any machine is always less than one hundred percent. The most important energy conversion machines on earth are green leaves. Typically green leaves can convert one to five percent of the sun's energy into a stored form of chemical energy in the plant leaf, stem, root, seed or fruit.
Food is the name we give to some of the chemical storehouses of energy that the plant produced. Animals who eat this plant food are a bit more efficient. They can convert about ten percent of the food energy into animal activities like movement, sight, hearing, speech, feelings and thought. The other ninety percent is lost to random heat energy (just as was the ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of the solar energy received by the green leaves).
Incandescent light bulbs are another kind of energy-converting machine. They are about eight percent efficient in converting electrical energy into light energy. The other ninety-two percent of the electricity they use goes into making heat. Fluorescent bulbs are two to three times as efficient as incandescent ones.
Automobile engines have efficiencies around twenty-five percent. Steam-electric power plants get thirty-eight percent efficiency and more. Large electric motors and generators today get over ninety percent efficiency. And the efficiency of all these machines is being improved dramatically every day.
Another unit important in the technology of energy is power. Power takes into account how fast the work is done. If it took you one hour to pull a wagon one mile, the scientist would say you had a power of 158,400 foot-pounds per hour. Or dividing by the sixty minutes in one hour, you have a power rating of 2,640 foot-pounds per minute. A horse could do the same amount of work faster. Or could do more work in the same amount of time. A horse has more power than a person. James Watt, one of the pioneer inventors of the steam engine took some measurements and found that a strong horse could do about 33,000 foot-pounds of work a minute-over ten times as much as a human being could do. He used this figure-33,000 foot-pounds per minute-and called it one horsepower.
Watt made up the horsepower unit to help in selling his new steam engines. He pointed out that his new machines were smaller than a horse, used cheap coal instead of expensive hay for fuel, never got tired and could do as much work as ten, twenty or even thirty horses. His business was a great success.
Today we still use horsepower as a unit of power, especially for steam engines and internal combustion engines. For most other purposes, however, scientists use another unit of power, the watt (named after James Watt). It takes 745 watts to make one horsepower. Since a watt is usually too small a unit to be practical, we usually use kilowatt (one thousand watts) as the unit of measure for power today.
To see how our power has increased over the ages note these figures: the human body can generate about one hundred watts of power; a horse can manage five hundred watts; a steam engine can generate two million watts; a gasoline engine ten million watts; a steam turbine one billion watts; and a rocket sixteen billion watts.
Let's put these figures in another way. A way that will lead to the final of our energy points of view that of society, that controversial arena where values play as big a part as facts.
Each person living in a hunting-gathering society can command about two hundred and fifty watts of power. A person living in an agricultural society can command about six hundred watts. A person living in a modern industrial society like the United States can command over twelve thousand watts.
All of these watts-all of these nonhuman slaves you might say-that make our high-energy society so different from low-energy societies of the past and present do not come without costs. As the saying goes, "there is no free lunch."
For one thing, most of the energy needed to make these watts of power today comes from the stored energy of fossil fuels-coal, oil and gas. Amory Lovins, research director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, explains the problems this way.
"We don't produce gas and coal. We dig them up and burn them. They were produced a long time ago. We don't know how to do that. Once we use them up, they're gone. There's an awful lot of fossil fuel in the world but we're starting to realize we can't burn it all. Especially we can't burn the bulk of it, which is the coal, for very long without changing the earth's climate. Whenever you burn, that carbon that's been locked up in the ground for a long time becomes carbon dioxide in the air. It absorbs heat. You get global warming. If you don't like it, in a while you can probably row up to the Capitol steps and complain about it."
Lovins is talking about what is called the greenhouse effect. There is dispute about how long it will take or how drastic its effects will be, but scientists generally agree that the more carbon dioxide we put into the air from burning fossils fuels, the more likely it is that the earth will become warmer. And probably within our life time. As the earth becomes warmer, the giant ice sheets at the North and South Poles will begin to melt. This will cause the ocean levels to rise. Coastal cities like New York, Los Angeles and even Washington D.C. could find themselves under water!
Another problem that comes from too much burning of fossil fuels is called acid rain. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides leave the smoke stacks of the power plant, combine with rain drops in the clouds and form an acid solution that can harm lakes, forests and farms hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.
One way to diminish or prevent the greenhouse effect and acid rain would be to change energy sources. A second way would be to use what energy sources we have much more efficiently. In the second case we would do just as much work (or more) but use less energy input. Hence there would be less pollution as well.
A third way would be to find effective ways to sequester (that is, to capture and store) carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases underground or under the sea. Experimental coal-fired plants that would do just that are already being designed and constructed in several countries around the world.
A fourth possibility would be to renounce high energy society and go back to a simpler low energy way of living. Not many would choose this way if it can be avoided, since it would also mean a drastic reduction in population and living standards. The people who know this low-energy way the best-those who now live in the underdeveloped world of Asia, Africa and South America-are near unanimous in wishing to move to a high-energy society. To be richer rather than poorer. To have more choices rather than fewer. To have a more human society rather than a survival one. And the sooner the better.
So the third of our energy points of view, society, boils down to three major issues:
l) How best to change over from a fossil fuel to a non-fossil fuel based system. Ideally this would be a renewable energy source, that is, one that nature keeps replenishing as fast as we use it up. Solar power is probably the most likely course-- from photovoltaic cells, from solar panels, from windmills, from hydroelectric dams or from biomass. Geothermal power from underground heat sources is another possibility. Another possibility, though not strictly speaking “renewable”, would be to develop nuclear power which would not contribute to air pollution or global warming and could provide a reliable base load of the electrical power needed for industrial societies.
(2) How best to use energy more efficiently no matter what the energy source. How to do more with less in other words. For instance, much electricity is used for lighting today and new compact fluorescent light bulbs are one important way to get greater light output using less energy input. Better insulation for buildings, better gas mileage for vehicles and improved efficiency for all industrial and household machines and appliances that can help people everywhere on earth do more with less.
(3) And finally, we need to find better ways to help the entire world change over to a high-energy, more human society, with the least amount of harmful side-effects.
On all three of these issues there are vast differences of opinion among the experts as well as ordinary citizens. How we answer one question has a great deal to do with how we answer the other questions. These questions, and the relationships between them, are not so complicated, however, that the ordinary citizen cannot understand them or choose intelligently among possible answers. In a democracy like ours, this makes all the difference